And Then The Buddha Threw Up in His Own Mouth

The New York Times, much as it did in the summer of 2001, knows what the priority is in Afghanistan: a couple of blown up statues. Never mind the 50,000 families hit by a flash flood this week. Never mind the Taliban killed 3,500 people this year and Afghanistan’s government is calling for more aid. Never mind the latest issue of Foreign Affairs has these nuggets:

It is the poorest country in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa, and its government remains weak and ineffective. Last year, it raised domestic revenue of about $13 per capita — hardly enough to buy each of its citizens one case of Coca-Cola from the recently opened bottling plant near Kabul, let alone take on all of the important tasks at hand.

Real estate prices and rents are dropping in Kabul, and occupancy rates are down. Fruit and vegetable sellers report a decline in demand of about 20 percent, and construction companies in Kabul report significant falls in employment and wages. A drought in some parts of the country has also led to displacement and a decline in agricultural employment, for which the record opium poppy crop has only partially compensated.

Oh yeah, the opium boom. Did I forget to mention that?

Moreover, the lack of electricity continues to be a major problem. No major new power projects have been completed, and Kabulis today have less electricity than they did five years ago. While foreigners and wealthy Afghans power air conditioners, hot-water heaters, computers, and satellite televisions with private generators, average Kabulis suffered a summer without fans and face a winter without heaters. Kabul got through the past two winters with generators powered by diesel fuel purchased by the United States; this year the United States made no such allocation.

It goes on and on. Meanwhile, what’s the New York Times got to tell us? We can rebuild the Buddhas. We can make them stronger, faster, better… with LASERS!!!! Yeah!!!!

But reassembling pieces that can weigh up to 90 tons would be extremely difficult; Afghanistan does not even have a crane strong enough to hoist them, Mr. Melzl said. The reconstruction project, which the governor of Bamiyan Province has estimated would cost $50 million, would probably also become a political issue in this impoverished Muslim country, where more than 10 percent of the population remains in need of food aid.

Nevertheless, the provincial governor, Habiba Sarabi, favors rebuilding the Buddhas using anastylosis, and said she would propose that the central government make a formal request to Unesco. Professor Maeda said he supports the idea of reassembling one of the Buddhas and leaving the other destroyed as a testament to the crime.

The government also approved the proposal of the Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata to mount a $64 million sound-and-laser show starting in 2009 that would project Buddha images at Bamiyan, powered by hundreds of windmills that would also supply electricity to surrounding residents.

And the villagers fled in panic as MechaSiddhartha vaporized huge swaths of the countryside with his laser beam eyes.

$64 million dollars that could go to… oh, I dunno, mine removal, food aid (the one issue the Times does mention), transitioning opium to alternate crops, building electricity plants, repairing a corrupt and inept police force, blah blah blah. I want lasers! A laser light show? That’s what Turkmenistan does with the rotating laser-enabled Rukhnama book statue.

Mr. Yamagata’s website,, says its sponsors are “Beverly Hills Mercedes Benz etc.” In the FAQ, he answers this question, which is apparently “frequently asked”:

Under the project members, there are names of celebrities such as Sharon Stone and Dennis Hopper, what kind of role do they play in the project? Are they going to be taking any part in the PR for the project?

Answer by Yamagata:
They are both my very close friends. In the future, in LA, they will actively play part in promoting this project. Moreover, in different occasions, we are scheduled to promote about this project in great detail and will actively take actions to gain support from many organisations.

*Ahem* You know, there’s a reason Buddhists wipe away sand mandalas and carve butter sculptures. It’s because they believe in the impermanence of things, and that human lives are more important than big rocks. I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and say that Buddha himself would say the statues had a good run, but quit weeping over them (especially since Japanese archaeologists did sophisticated modeling of them thirty years ago so they still exist virtually) and GO FEED SOMEBODY. WTF?

The Discussion: 23 Comments

Richard, why can’t I post in the message board? I have an account registered from way back when before you required authorization and posted once before.

In any case, I just wanted to say Ivan was being a dipshit, as usual, though not in so many words.

December 7, 2006 @ 5:21 am | Comment

The situation in Afghanistan is very very sad, and frustrating. Trouble is, when poverty is this horrific, any private effort that would probably help it (albeit it is a freakin’ laser show that only helps because of the construction of windmills) is only shot down by people as being not enough or not in the right direction. Sure, I think there could be better uses of that money, but it is a private investment after all. Shouldn’t we be encouraging more of this rather than attack it because it’s not what we would do with our money?

December 7, 2006 @ 6:06 am | Comment

@Chip: Let’s see who will benefit from this deal, in descending order:

– Hiro Yamagata
– Buddha Laser Manufacturers (currently no factories in Afghanistan)
– Buddha Laser/Windmill System Integration (no native Afghan contractors available)
– Windmill Manufacturers (am I repeating myself?)
– Beverly Hills Mercedes Benz (warm feeling in the cockles of their hearts)
– Beverly Hills Mercedes Benz Advertising Firm
– Sharon Stone (warm feeling of satisfaction from telling people sincerely at cocktail parties that she thinks lasers are “really important” for Afghanistan)
– Sharon Stone’s Caterer
– Some Afghans (four hours electricity a day that allow them to watch TV and see Sharon Stone on a Pashtun dubbed episode of Access Hollywood)

What we should be encouraging, Chip, is something less appalling than this. And I wanna see the Dalai Lama out there telling people that too, but frankly I don’t trust those damn mahayanas with their beady little, um, beads.

December 7, 2006 @ 9:37 am | Comment

Jing wrote:

“Richard, why can’t I post in the message board? I have an account registered from way back when before you required authorization and posted once before.

In any case, I just wanted to say Ivan was being a dipshit, as usual, though not in so many words.”

Well, Jing, that’s a pretty good reason to ban you from the message board.

December 7, 2006 @ 10:35 am | Comment

Dave, would you like to stop funding the Louvre too? Hell, let’s have a world-wide barn sale of all the art treasures in the world and shut down all the museums. Oh, here’s an even MORE economically efficient idea: Let’s take all of the ancient illuminated manuscripts out of the British Museum and give them to the homeless to use as toilet paper!

Is your main concern for social welfare, or do you have a particular beef against this endeavour because the statues are religious icons? I’m just asking. Lots of money goes into historical preservation or reconstruction projects all over the world, all the time. So why the outrage over this particular project?

And as far as I’m concerned, some human lives are NOT “as important as big rocks”, and not all big rocks are the same. If I were offered a choice between saving the life of Condoleeza Rice or preserving Michelangelo’s statue of David, I wouldn’t hesitate to wave bye-bye to Condoleeza.

December 7, 2006 @ 10:45 am | Comment

I’m afraid I have to disagree with you on this one, Dave. When I was a kid I saw a movie (forget the name) about the true WWII operation to save priceless artworks of Europe from being plundered by the Nazis. The military devoted time and money and lives to this effort to save these paintings and sculptures. Arguably, the Mona Lisa is a piece of canvas with oil smeared on it, and yet it and other great masterpieces are worth fighting, even dying for. We can ask, Why, at a time when Jews and Slavs were being slaughtered, did the military focus resources on saving some canvases and stones? Well, the answer is that, just like those human lives, these great works were priceless. I cannot fault the NYT in any way for this story, which is totally amazing. I cannot fault anyone who sees it as a noble and important endeavor to preserve/rescue priceless wonders of the world like the Buddah statues.

December 7, 2006 @ 11:00 am | Comment

Ah, I found the movie I referred to.

December 7, 2006 @ 11:07 am | Comment

Obviously the statues need to be rebuilt. But I see Dave’s point — is NOW the time to do it?

Improving the desperate lives of its citizens is surely the number one priority.

Afganistan is not only abysmally poor, but it is in a state of chaos and anarchy.

Okay, rebuild the statues … but how can we guarantee that the Taliban won’t blow them up again?

December 7, 2006 @ 11:13 am | Comment

And now I’m reminded of how this famous icon by Andre Rublev (c 1360 was rescued almost miraculously.
Here it is.

And what happened was, the Communist pigs tossed this icon into a pile of trash while they were going on a rampage destroying churches. (They didn’t destroy all Russian churches, but they tried, and came close.) Then – and here’s the almost “miraculous” bit – someone picked it out of the trash when he was foraging for firewood (because, well, firewood was one among many shortages the Communists caused.) He didn’t even know it was by Rublev,
but he thought it was worth preserving. That’s how the icon was saved – it’s in the Tretyakov Art Museum in Moscow now. (It looks even more impressive “in person”)

To me, that incident is a perfect illustration of what happens when “economics” or other kinds of putative “practicality” take priority over beauty. Icons like this one get tossed into trash piles and used as firewood (except for the intervention of the poor sod who found it), while all kinds of ugliness are erected in the name of “economic development” or “practicality.”

One of my favourite lines by Simone Weil: “The poor need beauty as much as they need bread.”

December 7, 2006 @ 12:16 pm | Comment

edit: I meant to write, Rublev lived c. 1360-1430.

December 7, 2006 @ 12:18 pm | Comment

@Ivan: No, I don’t want to stop funding the Louvre. I have a separate problem with museums and collectors funding a market for antiquities with no provenance or proper authentication by archaeologists, but that’s not related to this. That has to do with grave robbing and the complicity of art dealers, collectors and museums in enabling illicit markets that encourage the obliteration of historical information.

I have no problem with religious artifacts. And I’m not opposed per se to restoring the Bamiyan Buddhas. I do have a problem with a Hollywood funded laser light show mere kilometers from starving people.

If the lasers were pointed at Condi, I might reconsider.

@Richard: this isn’t about saving a work of art that is endangered. This about a work of art that is gone. 60% of it is dust. I was all for UNESCO efforts in the years before it blew up, and I even support limited archaeological work now. I have no problem with sorting and analyzing the rubble so that there’s systematic knowledge of what is left. But this is hardly the time for rebuilding.

More to the point I think the idea of a laser light show in Bamiyan while Afghanistan is still a horrible mess is a criminal misuse of money and energy. Raising money for demining or crop substitution isn’t as glamorous as Laser Bamiyan 2009, but it’s a hell of alot more effective. And my problem with the New York Times is that of all the things to talk about for Afghanistan, they choose this?

Looking at the NYT site, they’ve produced no in-depth coverage of the Pakistan-Taliban truce, the flooding, the call for more aid, the opium boom, the failure to extensively demine the country, the failure to provide electricity even to Kabul, none of this. For 30 days, they have reported only on 1) suicide bombings, 2) a poll showing Afghans don’t believe their govt can do anything and 3) a bunch of AP articles on these topics, but no original reporting.

This was the first battleground in the War on Terror, by the way, and perhaps Americans, as mujaheddin funders in the 80s and liberators in the 00s, might have some sort of responsibility or consideration for building the infrastructure that we once promised. The New York Times ought to be critically examining the myriad ways that the Afghan people are being ignored and neglected (again).

Or we could give ’em lasers.

December 7, 2006 @ 12:48 pm | Comment

“I do have a problem with a Hollywood funded laser light show mere kilometers from starving people.”

Funny, all kinds of wasteful vulgarities go on in Hollywood right in front of starving, homeless people all the time.

And what does proximity have to do with this? And what is your particular problem with lasers? Were you exposed to some kind of “Clockwork Orange” style adverse conditioning experiment when you were a child, forced to watch Star Trek reruns while receiving electric shocks?

December 7, 2006 @ 1:03 pm | Comment

So you’ve got an opium boom and a killer laser show. Seems logical to me.

December 7, 2006 @ 2:18 pm | Comment

@Ivan: “Funny, all kinds of wasteful vulgarities go on in Hollywood right in front of starving, homeless people all the time.”

And I disapprove of those as well.

@88: Touche.

December 7, 2006 @ 3:26 pm | Comment

Come now Ivan, I’d only be adding to the atmosphere.

Knock Knock Richard, let me in by the hair on my chinny chin chin.

December 7, 2006 @ 10:53 pm | Comment

Jing, you aren’t banned. Send me an email and I’ll try to fix the problem. But if you just want to go there to insult someone, is it realy worth it?

December 7, 2006 @ 11:13 pm | Comment

Ok, Dave, let’s insult and attack private business, charities, and investors because they’re ineffective. Then watch as they leave Afghanistan in the dust. Are you for forcing them to use their money how YOU want to? I think we can all agree that there are far more effective uses of money in a country crippled with poverty, but in the end it’s not our money. Heck, we should prevent all foreign private investment in Afghanistan, we can see how succesful that’s been for Burma, North Korea, and Iraq, right?

December 8, 2006 @ 4:19 am | Comment

I’m with Chip on this one: the Bamiyan statues are part of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and if private money goes toward restoring them, then why not? That Afghanistan has other problems is rather beside the point.

For example, let’s say the Statue of Liberty were to be destroyed by terrorists. I doubt any American would object to a massive effort to rebuild it, even if the money would be better spent on helping the needy.

I do agree that the idea of a laser light show there sounds ridiculously tacky.

December 8, 2006 @ 4:28 pm | Comment

I think it’s a great idea. It sends a message to those terrorists: mess around with our statues and you’ll get a tacky laser show right next door.

December 8, 2006 @ 9:38 pm | Comment

I’m with Dave on this one,

Yes, poor people need beauty as much as bread, but one must never forget that they need bread as much as beauty. Without proper perspective it is possible to justify almost anything. Are we willing to forgo THEIR bread to preserve OUR beauty. I think that Dave’s main beef was with the NYT not giving a balanced view of what are the real problems that Afghanistan is facing. I agree.

This is a “feel good” issue. Afghanis deserve a little more respect than that.

December 9, 2006 @ 1:51 pm | Comment

Just a thought…but has anyone asked the Afghanis what they think? Maybe they would like to see a part of their historical culture restored. Of course, they may not give a rat’s ass about some big rocks.

Or maybe they could just follow the Buddha’s own teachings…and not make statues of him.

December 9, 2006 @ 10:41 pm | Comment

Gojuplyr wrote

“Just a thought…but has anyone asked the Afghanis what they think? Maybe they would like to see a part of their historical culture restored. Of course, they may not give a rat’s ass about some big rocks.”

Now, MY question is: WHAT generation of so-called “Afghanis” (a very vague term) are you asking this about?

Many centuries ago, the people who lived in that part of Afghanistan DID care about those statues.

And so, if the present generation of people who live there don’t care about those statues, let me ask you: WHY should THIS generation of people who live in that area, have the final word about what happens to those statues?

Have you considered, that perhaps, some people who live there a thousand years from now, might want those statues to be preserved?

The idea that the PRESENT generation has any right to make decisions which will be impossible for later generations to alter, is EXACTLY the definition of “barbarianism.” To be a “barbarian”, means, to think only of the present, without any regard for how your decisions affect past or future generations.

December 10, 2006 @ 12:11 am | Comment

BTW, I could be wrong, but I think “Afghanis” generally refers to the currency system. “Afghans” is used for the people of Afghanistan.

Or, you know, knitted rug thingies.


confused Pendant

December 10, 2006 @ 5:46 pm | Comment

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